The intrepid diner has learned that treasures lurk in the most unexpected places. And so it is at Joy Luck, where camouflage is provided by the word Buffet in its name. There are, in effect, two restaurants inside, the buffet and a printed menu featuring the fiery food of Szechuan province. We later learned there is also a more standard American-Chinese menu, but we've always preferred extremes. Fortunately, the Chinese menu also has English translations.
The buffet seems patronized almost exclusively by those whose ancestors were not from Asia. Sad but true, the delicacy and freshness that marks good Chinese food doesn't stand up well to continued heating on steam tables. While the cost is very reasonable, $6.49 to $8.99, depending on when one visits, and the buffet itself is large, four tables plus a counter for sushi, the selection is mostly among unremarkable, inexpensive items. We saw a couple of dishes with a few shrimp, but there were nine different preparations of chicken. Our favorite was an absolutely stunning hot-and-sour soup, assertively spiced with both heat and sourness, showing a remarkable earthiness, and served steaming hot. Close behind were some simple stir fried green beans, still slightly crunchy (but, alas, barely warm, especially after a stroll back to the table). And we cheered at the doughnuts, little pillows of dough, not greasy, tossed in granulated sugar and on a serving platter refreshed frequently enough that they stayed tender and very warm each time we visited.
When we asked for the Chinese menu, we were warned about the spiciness of much of the food. But at least no one insisted it was too spicy for people like us, which happened a few times some years ago. The spicy Szechuan dumplings had a great gingery filling and were dressed with chili oil, a frequent ingredient in this cuisine. The skins were thicker than some, a common trait in the Szechuan kitchen. And, yes, they were spicy, spicier than most hot dishes at Chinese restaurants around town. Not spicy was a dish called tiny golden mushrooms, which brought little enoki mushrooms and pieces of cucumber with a hit of sesame oil, a nice counterpoint to its hotter siblings.
Another spicy starter was the pig's ear, cool julienne slices of the crunch-chewy gristle (remember that Chinese chefs and diners think about texture as well as taste and aroma), dressed with a little chili oil and speckled with bits of Szechuan peppercorn. Tasty seaweed salad was not the brilliant green color we usually see, but longer, thin pasta-like strands of dark reddish brown. The dressing was more acidic than we usually find, perhaps from the presence of some ginger. Hot-and-sour noodles, slurpy, sour, spicy, salty, with plenty of garlic and a garnish of cooked peanuts, which reminded us they're not nuts, but legumes that can be cooked like lentils or limas. Also a winner.
From the main courses, there was a stir-fried pork with garlic sauce. It's marked as hot on the Americanized menu, not on the Asian version. Still, it was fairly spicy, with red and green sweet peppers, the small dried hot red peppers and plenty of chili oil, plus bamboo shoots and shiitake mushrooms. Crispy chicken (shown below) appears as knuckle-sized pieces of meat that are seasoned and fried, then tossed with what seems to be more peppers, including sweet green and red, slices of jalapeno, and the killer baby reds. And yet most of the heat seems to come from the chicken rather than the peppers and oil. It was one of our favorites among the main courses.
Shrimp in a variation of the salt-and-pepper dish that utilized the tingly Szechuan pepper, excelled, too, the shrimp shells so tender that even for the fastidious, peeling was unnecessary, the sweetness of their flesh a nice backdrop to the heat. We were glad to see lamb on the menu, too, two choices, cumin and country style. We chose the latter and still are not sure if we were given the other by mistake. The thinly sliced lamb was tender and vigorously seasoned with cumin and some of the hot chili oil. It would have been a fine dish had it not been extremely salty, something we didn't encounter in any of the other dishes we tried.
Not seen on any of the menus is the hot pot, though we saw several bubbling away on tabletops. Interestingly, the pan is divided into two sections; we're told one is spicy, the other not. That's what we'll try on our next visit, when we introduce our pal the Old China Hand to the pleasures of this cuisine, and, happily, the marvelous Mrs. Hand can have food that won't cause her to combust.
Mostly good service, although when things are really rocking, one occasionally must be a little aggressive to get attention.
8030 Manchester Rd., Brentwood
Lunch & Dinner daily
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Good